A Case Study of a Multiliteracies Curriculum in University French Classes
Dr. Natalie Amgott, describes her dissertation project on multiliteracies curricula in a university French program, which earned her a Mango Languages Dissertation Award.
by Natalie Amgott, PhD
Do you remember your college language classes? Have you forgotten everything but “Hello,” and “Where’s the bathroom?” If so, you’re not alone! The truth is, many language courses fall short when it comes to teaching students relevant and useful content and retaining it in the long term (Aghaei & Gouglani, 2016; Sanatullova-Allison, 2014). Why is that? A lot of this actually comes down to how language curricula are designed.
In college language programs, language and content tend to be separated. This means that students typically spend the first four semesters of language classes in a vocabulary and verb conjugation “boot camp” before moving on to content areas like literature, linguistics, and culture, where they can actually apply what they’ve learned to meaningful material. In between these language courses and content courses, there are often some bridge courses intended to recap all the things from grammar and/or pronunciation. This model, while prevalent, is not so conducive to student retention. In fact, college language programs are continually being cut due to low enrollment. This begs the question — how can college language courses be restructured to promote the teaching of relevant language content and, as a result, increase student retention?
The answer may lie in a pedagogical approach known as multiliteracies. Multiliteracies refers to how we make meaning across multiple channels of communication (e.g., social media, film, news, poetry), multiple modes (e.g., images, colors, text, sounds, videos), and multiple languages. Students in multiliteracies curricula design their own multimedia interpretations of course material, which increases engagement and motivation, two key drivers of language learning success (Jiang & Luk, 2016; Pistol & Kaur, 2015; Torres-Sánchez, 2015).
Empowered by the promise of multiliteracies curricula for language learning, I designed several multiliteracies French courses for a large undergraduate university French program in the U.S., including one intermediate French course for students studying at the home university and four advanced courses for students studying abroad in Paris. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I implemented these courses in the French program and set out to understand how students, professors, and administrators experienced multiliteracies curricula.
Teacher Mentoring with Multiliteracies Curricula
My first step was understanding the experiences of different stakeholders in the multiliteracies curriculum. In a college setting, this includes administrators, professors, adjuncts, graduate instructors, and undergraduate students. Through interviews and classroom observations, along with information from the program’s website and data on student proficiency, I was able to paint a picture of the tensions and opportunities experienced by different stakeholders.
Some clear benefits of multiliteracies emerged from this analysis, particular with respect to instructors. Teaching multiliteracies courses was linked to more informal mentoring and sharing materials among instructors. This was particularly important because it was the first time that instructors in the department felt comfortable sharing their materials. Formerly, they each worked independently on lesson plans and reported feeling tired of “reinventing the wheel.” On the other hand, instructors who instead used more traditional methods tended to underestimate the abilities of their students to engage meaningfully with materials made for Francophone audiences (e.g., news articles, videos, social media posts). As a result, students in more traditional classes may be at a disadvantage because they are lacking opportunities to meaningfully engage with authentic material (Reeve & Lee, 2014).
Undergraduate Perspectives on Student Learning
Next, I zoomed in on undergraduate students’ perspectives. I analyzed over 600 assignments and projects from 185 students in the multiliteracies course and interviewed a representative sample of ten students, including students who were majoring in French, minoring in French, and taking French for the university’s language program requirement. I identified four ways that multiliteracies curricula benefit student language learning.
- Most students developed practices of critical literacy, or learning to take a stance as they bridged local and national issues to course content.
- Most students expressed that they believed that they could improve their French abilities through dedication. In other words, they developed a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). This made them enjoy language learning more and gave them a sense of resilience.
- Students felt that they learned more French than they had in their previous courses. According to the students, they learned more because they were given multiple entry points to access language material that was more relevant to them than typical French textbooks. Those student intuitions are pretty consistent with research on learning (Willis, 2007)!
- Students developed a classroom community, which they felt facilitated their learning (Lomicka, 2020). They often used humor to appeal directly to peers through language, image, music, or social media. Students stated that this community building was particularly appreciated during the switch to online language learning in Spring of 2020 when engagement with peers made pandemic learning seem more feasible than in courses with fewer interactional elements.
The final part of my dissertation focused on multiliteracies in the university’s study abroad program in Paris. I investigated how students experienced designing multimodal projects to reflect on language, culture, and identity while studying abroad.
The students clearly demonstrated metalinguistic awareness, or an understanding of their own language learning process, by leveraging multiple modes like images, text, and voice to traverse their own language learning. For example, in their vlogs (video blogs), students often used subtitles, emojis, and/or re-recording to correct perceived mistakes.
These projects additionally helped students to shed their rose-colored glasses to reflect on the nuances of language and culture and to problematize cultural stereotypes. For example, students reflected on cultural differences such as conservative dressing, the lack of air conditioning, and the large size of home-cooked meals in a way that showed that they also were able to view their own cultures through new eyes. Through voice, text, gifs, sound, and translanguaging (using the multiple language varieties at their disposal), students illustrated cultural comparisons like the always long lines for women’s restrooms in France and the US (see image).
Still frame of a study-abroad student’s multimedia project. The student speaks to the camera, in French, about long lines for women’s restrooms in the U.S. and France. This is accompanied by a slow-motion video of women waiting in line to use the restroom, gifs and stylized text that appear and move around on the screen, and sound effects like a clock ticking, sheep baaing, and cows mooing.
Overall, implementing and analyzing a new language curriculum has left us with a few key takeaways about some of the potential benefits of a multiliteracies approach:
- Instructors mentor each other and collaborate more.
- Students gain critical literacy skills and develop a growth mindset.
- Students feel like they learn more.
- Students connect to each other and the communities around them.
- Students reflect more intentionally on their own language learning process.
So if you’re a language teacher or program administrator, make sure you’re integrating multimedia projects like vlogs, blogs, and hypertext poetry into your courses!
Acknowledgements: I am thankful to Mango for the Mango Dissertation Award which allowed me to analyze and write up the findings of these three studies.
Want to learn more about the research presented in this article?
- Natalie published her study abroad findings in the Journal of Language, Identity, and Education. Check it out here.
- For more on teaching language with multiliteracies, check out this guided video by Kate Paesani, Heather Willis Allen, and Beatrice Dupuy.
- For more on growth mindset, check out Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
- For more on foreign language enrollments in the United States, check out Polyglottis Language Academy.
Here’s a full list of the references cited in this article:
- Aghaei, K., & Gouglani, F. (2016). Multimodal pedagogy and L2 vocabulary retention. International Journal of English Language & Translation Studies, 4(3), 142-153.
- Jiang, L., & Luk, J. (2016). Multimodal composing as a learning activity in English classrooms: Inquiring into the sources of its motivational capacity. System, 59, 1-11.
- Lomicka, L. (2020). Creating and sustaining virtual language communities. Foreign Language Annals, 53(2), 306-313.
- Pishol, S., & Kaur, S. (2015). Teacher and students' perceptions of reading a graphic novel using the multiliteracies approach in an ESL classroom. Malaysian Journal of Learning and Instruction, 12, 21-47.
- Reeve, J. & Lee, W. (2014). Students’ classroom engagement produces longitudinal changes in classroom motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(2), 527-540.
- Sanatullova-Allison, E. (2014). Memory retention in second language acquisition and instruction: Insights from literature and research. IAFOR Journal of Language Learning, 1(1), 1-13.
- Torres-Sánchez, M. (2015). Integrating multiliteracies into the ESL curriculum: Graphic novels as a means of expression and motivation (Doctoral dissertation). Recinto Universitario de Mayagüez.
- Willis, J. (2007). The neuroscience of joyful education. Educational Leadership, 64, 1-5.
Author Bio: Natalie Amgott
Natalie Amgott is the Associate Director of Online Language Learning at Carnegie Mellon University. She holds a PhD from the University of Arizona in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching. Her professional interests include language program evaluation, French teaching, curriculum design, and online language learning.